- Hardcover: 365 pages
- Publisher: Crest - Fawcett (1964)
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00GUJJVP0
- Package Dimensions: 6.9 x 4.1 x 1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.3 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 38 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,499,904 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Man With the Golden Arm Hardcover – 1964
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The novel is set in the bars, cheap apartments, prisons, and streets frequented by the Chicago underclass in 1947- 1948. The novel's main character, who goes by the name of Frankie Machine, has acquired the nickname of the "man with the golden arm" due in part to his steadiness in dealing cards. Frankie aspires to put his steadiness of arm, wrist and hand to use by becoming a jazz drummer. Characters in this novel often are called by their roles, and Frankie is known as "Dealer". Frankie served in the Army in WW II, took a severe wound to the stomach, and became a morphine addict. Algren's novel is one of the first to explore seriously and realistically the use of drugs.
The novel is filled with low life, highly differentiated characters, including Frankie's friend Solly, a mildly-retarded petty thief who usually is called Sparrow, or "punk". Frankie is unhappily married to Sophie, called "Zosh" who is bitter and confined to a wheelchair after an accident with Frankie driving the car. Frankie has a mistress, Mollie, a stripper and bar maid; Sparrow has a mistress, Violet, whom he sees when her husband, the Old Man is asleep or in his cups. The book is replete with shady, colorful characters, including the bar owner, the keeper of the fixed card games that uses Frankie as the dealer, crooked lawyers, quack doctors, gamblers, drunks, petty criminals, and fixers.
The plot develops slowly and involves Frankie and Sparrow's relationship and the accidental killing of the fixer, Louis, which results in Frankie's attempt to evade the law. The novel is in two lengthy sections with most of the action and plot development taking place in the second section. Most of the book consists of a lengthy series of vignettes of varying lengths separated by paragraph breaks. These small sections each focus on a particular scene and a small group of individuals. They develop character and settings. Aspects of the story get foretold in each of the settings but dimly so with the overall focus of the story becoming clear only as it proceeds. The scenes are often not chronological and sometimes tend to run into each other with an almost surrealistic effect.
Much of the novel is in dialogue and full of the slang of the late 1940s. The book is replete with religious, racial, and national derogatory terms that would not meet contemporary standards The book is full of quotations from billboards, ads, and popular songs. The omniscient narrator's voice is, in contrast to the dialogue, poetic and rhythmical. With its lyricism, the novel concludes fittingly with a poem. Throughout the book, the narrator describes and comments on the characters and their actions with a mix of compassion and irony. In this passage early in the novel, the narrator comments on the American dream through Frankie's eyes.
"The great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. Guilt that lay crouched behind every billboard which gave each man his commandments; for each man here had failed the billboards all down the line. No Ford in this one's future nor ever any place all his own. Had failed before the radio commercials, by the street car plugs and by the standards of every self-respecting magazine. With his own eyes he had seen the truer Americans mount the broad stone stairways to success surely and swiftly and unaided by others; he was always the one left alone, it seemed at last, without enough sense of honor to climb off a West Madison Street Keep-Our-City-Clean box and not enough ambition to raise his eyes back to the billboards."
The following passage describes a nightly gathering of suspects in a local police station.
" Yet they come on and come on, and where they come from no captain knows and where they go no captain goes: mush workers and lush workers, catamites and sodomites, bucket workers and bail jumpers, till tappers and assistant pickpockets, square johns and copper johns; lamisters and hallroom boys, ancient pious perverts and old blown parolees, rapoes and record-men; the damned and the undaunted, the jaunty and condemned."
The novel starts slowly and with some rough edges gathers in force and conviction. The reader gradually gets drawn into the settings and develops a feeling for the characters and their struggles and failings without romanticizing them. "We are all members of one another" is a theme driven home in the work through all the stories of isolation, frustration and loneliness. "The Man With The Golden Arm" is slow and difficult; but it is an American masterwork. I am grateful to the documentary I saw for getting me to read this novel at last.
Set in the beatnik era, in the Polish ghetto around Division St., in Chicago, the main character, Frankie Majcinek is haunted by his alter ego, Sergeant McGantic, who binds him to his heroin addiction which he apparently contracted in a war hospital during World War II. A failure with the novel may be the easy explanation for the addiction that Frankie seems determined yet unable to escape, personified in the 35 monkey that clings to his back. But it is immaterial whether Frankie is addicted to heroin or bubble gum. He is just one of the characters who depends on a crutch. His wife, Zosh, suffers from psychosomatic paralysis; the son of the landlord of Frankie's tenement, is addicted to planting wooden daisies in spaces between stairs; Zosh's friend Vi constrains herself by choosing a series of lovers too old or too weak to satisfy her; Sparrow, Frankie's dedicated but untrustworthy friend, is a punk who can't control his urge to make petty thefts; Captain Bednar is driven to share in the guilt of all the human flotsam he gathers into his police station, to find the guilty and give them confession, like a redeeming policeman priest.
All the central characters take great risks, and even when some small opportunity arrives for them to escape, they waste it, like Molly Novotny who spends "ten seconds too long playing waitress", so that she and Frankie miss their chance to escape together. The novel recalls Gogol's "Lower Depths" on the holy misery of Moscow's underclass. It abounds with failed Christ figures unable to redeem themselves let alone the rest of humanity they hope to save. In this mood of divine despair, Sparrow tells Captain Bednar, "You're nailin' me to the cross, Captain," and he answers, "I'm nailin' you...what the hell you think they're doin' to me," where "hell" is pregnant with the sense of endless suffering.
The Man with the Golden Arm (50th Anniversary Edition): 50th Anniversary Critical Edition
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If you like Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, William Burroughs, you will like this.